Fancy Paris for a city break this year? Then plan nothing until you’ve read this, my essential (not strictly essential) guide to The City of Lights and l’amour! Well, actually it’s mostly about food…
48 HOURS IN… PARIS
In recent years the image of Paris has become more synonymous with burning cars than burning love. So, has the most romantic city in the world still got it, or is the end of the affair? Let me, your very own L’Amour médecin, answer that for you…
Before we begin, if you’ve been misled into thinking that this article, 48-Hours in… Paris, was in some way a sequel to the infamous sex tape that was cynically released tragically leaked of hotel chain airhead heiress, Paris Hilton, then a) you’ve got the wrong website and b) prepare to be massively disappointed…
For many years in what I am now forced to refer to as ‘my youth’ the city of Paris was my favourite destination, and I’d visit at least once or twice a year to stroll her boulevards, sit at her pavement cafes, explore her history, marvel at her architecture, and drink in an atmosphere that only in Paris and the pre-1960s could you still get away with describing as ‘gay’.
But that was then, and as the years passed my visits become more infrequent until, like a spurned lover in a tired, burnt out affair, I eventually abandoned Paris altogether to go flirting with more exotic locations. So, returning after so long away, would Paris still hold its magic? Would the most romantic city in the world still be the most romantic city in the world or would it now just be ‘that place with the big pylon’? Could the unbridled cynicism of the modern world, the world which abandoned amour for the amoral, dating for dogging, and nights of sweet devotion for Nazi-themed sex dungeons, have long moved past the pull of Paris? Packing my ball-gag and gimp-mask, I jumped on a plane to find out…
Night & Day At The Opera
Unlike most other European capital cities, Paris never suffered the architectural embarrassment of being bombed or shelled during WWII, thanks mainly to a French policy on building preservation that forced them to capitulate to the Germans the moment the Panzers rolled into range. As a result the buildings of Paris are as grand and stunning as the day they were completed, something which means the look of the city hasn’t really been altered to any degree for hundreds of years, because it hasn’t needed to be.
This, of course, means that the physical charm of Paris is still the first thing to strike any visitor, from the over-the-top splendour of the Opéra Garnier to the imposing Gothic bell-ringing glory of Notre Dame, from the sprawling majesty of the Dan Brown over-described Musée du Louvre to the pure self-aggrandising pomp of the Arc de Triomphe, and let’s not forget that shameless iron scene stealer that Gustave Eiffel chucked up for the 1889 World’s Fair, the architecture of Paris sets the benchmark by which all other European capital cities are judged.
Being as culturally sound as I am, a favourite of mine has always been the Opéra Garnier. Formerly completely shrouded in countless decades of soot and grime, the Opéra was one of many buildings given a good sprucing in time for the year 2000, so what was once the obvious broodingly Neo-Baroque home of any tormented phantom with an eye for architecture is now a colossal gleaming wedding cake of white stone and gold that wouldn’t look out of place as the centrepiece at some Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.
Naturally, because I was there and trouble seems to be a constant companion when I travel, this visit was somewhat marred by an altercation between customers of a nearby pavement cafe, one of which ended up with an unexpectedly open throat. There ensued a bit of a man-hunt which, as I was on holiday, I watched with interest over an omlette and beer at a different nearby cafe, casually pointing out the concealed weapons of passing plain clothes police to my wife. Ah, Paris!
But banging on about buildings in this city is like cracking on about craters on the moon or sex workers in Amsterdam and, frankly, there just isn’t the time. However, there’s another reason for starting with the star of the 9th arrondissement, it is also – for my money – in one of the best locations in the whole city; which is why I picked a hotel literally two minutes down the road.
The Hôtel de Noailles is a 4-star boutique hotel that marries tasteful contemporary design with excellent service and a position that puts it mere minutes from the thriving heart of the city, yet tucked just out of the way enough to ensure peace and quiet away from the hubbub of shrugging, baguette carrying Parisians and casual glassings (of which, I should point out, Paris is not at all renowned for). All rooms from standard single to junior suite are modern and chic with all the amenities you’d expect from a good 4-star, and complimentary Wi-Fi comes available on request. Downstairs, meanwhile, there’s a comfortable and airy lounge, Japanese style garden, and a well-stocked bar and breakfast area. But as pleasant as the hotel is, this is Paris and, unless you’re on honeymoon, you’re probably not going to spend too much time in your room…
Especially so when you consider that the Musée de Louvre, with around 35,000 works of art and relics, is a mere 15-minute walk away. I mention the specific number of exhibits on display not to instill a Dan Brown-esque air of brochure-reading research padding, but just to point out that you’ll probably want to set aside more than an hour or so to attempt the Louvre, particularly if you’re trying to impress someone with your extensive knowledge of the big hitters such as the Mona Lisa (as made famous in The Da Vinci Code) and the Venus de Milo (as probably covered over five filler pages too).
And if you are out to show someone a culturally good time, then beyond the Louvre lies the Jardin des Tuileries, the five kilometre ornate gardens that combine statues, fountains, leafy alleys, sun traps and lawns with cafes and even a fun fair. A stroll through here on a sunny day and you can forgive Paris anything, even the Citizen-enraging prices that the aforementioned cafes charge.
The Tuileries are also home to the Musée de l’Orangerie at the Place de la Concorde end, which in turn is home to works by Picasso, Cézanne, Matisse, Renoir and, moreover, Monet’s Water Lilies, amongst countless other paintings for you to cast your critical eye over (some look to me like the childish daubings of excitable chimps, but I kept that to myself. Mostly).
But even Monet can’t buy you love (ahem), so after the culture where next to seek out that old spirit of romance? Why over dinner of course…
Taste Of Paris
Not particularly famed for its cuisine, finding somewhere decent to eat in Paris can be something of a nightmare. Hang on, that’s wrong isn’t it? World-famous for its cuisine, deciding on somewhere to eat in Paris and then getting a reservation can be something of a nightmare. There, that’s better. Fortunately I’d planned ahead and running directly along one side of the Tuileries is the rue de Rivoli, one of the most famous shopping streets in the city and the location of the exclusive 5-star Le Meurice Hotel. WARNING: This is now mostly about glutony…
Owned by the exclusive Dorchester Group, Le Meurice is one of the grandest, most stately hotels in Paris. With some 160 luxuriously decorated and appointed rooms commanding the best views over the city, kings and queens, aristocracy of all kinds, and the celebrities of the day have all made Le Meurice their temporary home since 1835, including a certain bonkers Spanish painter who enjoyed eating there so much that one of the main restaurants was designed in his influence and named after him during Philippe Starck’s 2000 complete interior redesign.
To dine in Restaurant le Dali is to be immersed in true gastronomic greatness. Not only is the setting lavishy impressive, the menu itself has been created by three Michelin-star-toting chef Yannik Alléno to offer a fresh approach to traditional cuisine that, whether you choose from the ‘100% Cheeky’ or ‘Without Guilt’ menus, will always take the form of an orgasm on your tongue. Naturally, I always try to give 100% and so opted for the Duck foie gras terrine “à l’orange” – not so much an entrée as foreplay, the rich, full flavours teasing the taste buds – followed by the full-on religious experience that is le Dali’s Black Angus beef rib steak with lemon parsley butter. Beautifully presented and made from the choicest, freshest produce, sitting in le Dali, drinking in the grandeur (and a very good Burgundy) while letting perfectly done medium-rare Black Angus steak melt in your mouth you could easily forget every other dinner out you’ve ever had before. And as to the lemon meringue tart which followed – pure indulgence on a plate; light, refreshing, fragrant and deliciously zingy, washed down with a 2007 Pouilly-Fumé Château de Tracy, the perfect finale to an exceptional evening of oral entertainment.
Naturally in a venue of this calibre, the service is also second to none, with staff that has been trained to anticipate your needs before you even realise you have any. The ambiance for such a grand setting is also pleasantly and surprisingly relaxed, all of which combines to make for a dining experience that may be on the pricier (and more formal), but which should not be missed if you have the opportunity, the means and can manage to get a reservation, of course – not everyone can be a famous journalist… or a chancer with a press card.
Old Jazz Hands
So how do you top Restaurant le Dali? You don’t try to, is the simple answer. Instead you take a different route and reserve a table at the stylish fusion of 1930’s chic and contemporary elegance that is the Louis2 restaurant at Hôtel de la Trémoille. A few steps from the Champs Elysées, this luxury spa hotel offers 93 perfectly appointed, thoroughly modern rooms right in the heart of the city, spitting distance from the Golden Triangle (spitting is not encouraged). Moreover it is also home to Yann Frohn, a chef whose impressive CV includes the likes of the Hôtel Martinez in Cannes and the Hôtel Plaza Athénée right here in Paris, so a reservation here comes with a warning to prepare to be dazzled.
Blending top-end fresh ingredients with a specific eye for aesthetics, the menu Frohn has created reflects the setting in its cool, chic, smart-casual approach, offering snacks such as cheeseburgers, bagels and omelettes to larger fish dishes, Black Angus steak, and duck, all served like works of edible art.
Here the Céviche de daurade is an ample portioned entrée of fish subtly flavoured with herbs, olive oil, lime and apple-ginger pearls that burst on the tongue to round off the beautifully balanced flavours. For my main I made the strategic move from fish to chicken and followed with a succulent Volaille fermière rôtie complete with pommes allumettes – yes, chicken and chips in essence, but as mercifully far removed from a KFC bargain bucket as it’s possible to get.
Ending on a Crème brûlée that came perfectly carmelised on top and delicately flavoured with just the right hint of vanilla, dinner at Louis2 doesn’t come with all the grandeur of le Dali, but what it offers instead is exceptional food minus the exceptional price, served up in a comfortably chic environment with a lively atmosphere, all of which makes it the perfect location for any kind of celebration. Especially given there’s also the Louis2’s bar and its famed jazz cocktails too. It would be rude not to…
The more alert of you may now be wondering how I managed to fit in three evening meals in 48-hours and, yes, you have me, I may have spent slightly longer than the allotted time in Paris, but there was an excellent reason: 58 Tour Eiffel…
Other than the Jules Verne further up the tower on the second floor, 58 is the only other restaurant to offer such incredible views across the city – if it really is romance you’re looking for, this is where you’ll find it, 95-metres above sea level. Bring your lady here and from the moment you arrive to be led up the sweeping wood and steel staircase to your table right by the window (make that reservation in plenty of time to guarantee you can get one, unlike the shouty, waiter-threatening German bloke who hadn’t), the work is practically all done for you.
Despite pumping out a few perplexing choices of background music, the restaurant is striking, with the iron work of the tower serving to remind you just where you’re privileged to be eating, but it’s the view outside – the reason why Paris is known as the City of Lights – that is the real star.
This being the case, you might be tempted to think that the food here plays second fiddle, but that would instantly make you some kind of colossal cretin on a par with someone from an Injury Lawyer TV advert. Hardly, the menu at 58 is varied and inventive, presenting you with some difficult choices. Fortunately, in this instance, the chef in this had prepared a special taster menu, saving me the trouble. And as an added bonus, refusing to be outdone, the wine waiter too had gone to the trouble of selecting the respective wine pairings for each course too.
Starting with the Veloute glacé de petits pois à la Française (a gloriously fresh and creamy, chilled French-style green pea soup) served with a glass of Champagne, naturally, is just right for getting your taste buds lined up for what’s to come… which if you fancy two entrées (and I heartily recommend it), should be the Oeuf mollet croustillant – a crispy soft-boiled egg served with glazed onion, lardons and sauce meurette – it’s the French take on bacon and eggs and it makes our effort seem Neanderthal.
The 2009 Dourthe No.1 sauvignon blanc served with the egg also stuck around for the first main of Dos de cabillaud roti – roasted cod with green asparagus in a butter sauce –a perfect pairing served in measures enough to sate the average appetite. But we weren’t done yet. No, for the second main chef had selected the Côte de veau cuite au sautoir – sautéed veal chop with peppered artichokes – served with 2008 Brouilly Château de la Perriere, a fruity Beaujolais that was just the trick to complement the rich flavour of the veal and the peppery veg. It’s also the perfect drop to accompany a Fraisier à notre façon, the wonderful strawberry torte than finished the meal off and, after so much food, almost finished me off too.
But for me, the remarkable thing about 58 is that despite the exclusive location, the attentive service, the excellent food and wine, it’s remarkable reasonably priced with dinner costing from a mere €70; so massively impressive for your date and massively relieving for your bank manager.
Money Can Buy You Love?
The problem with writing about Paris is that there really isn’t anything you can say about her that hasn’t already been said thousands of times in thousands of novels, guide books and travel articles – and even that line has been written countless hundreds of times too to conclude yet another piece on the subject. The cafes have been done to death, the restaurants hammered, the art and architecture battered, the ‘scenes’ be they high-end, low-end, gay, straight, refined, raucous, peaceful or perverted have been over-analysed and over-reviewed ever since the Parisians first stopped chopping people’s heads off for having too much disposable income.
But there’s good reason for this – Paris still inspires. Every tourist to the City of Light comes away gushing superlatives and every would-be writer (pen owner) with even the most tenuous grasp of language honestly believes they can add worthwhile words to the litany already in existence. They can’t, but there’s no harm in trying.
What did I learn? Well I generally learn nothing, but it was reassuring to see that Paris is still as majestic as ever, unspoilt by bolt-on modern architecture designed to juxtapose historical monuments or some old toss, as favoured in nearly every other European capital these days. It was also good to see that the traffic laws remain as flexible as a Chinese contortionist and that crossing the road can be as thrilling as streaking across a firing range.
For lovers of art and architecture, Paris is still number one. For lovers of fine food and wine, it’s unbeatable. But for actual lovers? Well, of course the most romantic city in the world is still the most romantic city in the world, capable of working its magic as well now as it always has been and of inspiring amour in even the most unromantic; as long as you don’t believe any of that merde about love being free, of course; or even reasonably priced…